This time of the year, the little Village of Clifton receives a great deal of attention, largely because of the well-known display of Christmas lighting at the Clifton Mill. It is said the village received its name from the nearby cliffs. The town has a long and interesting history, but for whatever reason, remained a small town.
Many years ago, the Shawnee Indians spent time in the area and it is still rumored that silver mine is located in the vicinity. Many have attempted to find the treasure, but no one has made a discovery. However, geologists say there is little evidence that any vein of silver ever existed in the area.
There is the story of Cornelius Darnell who was held captive by the Shawnee at Old Chillicothe (Old Town). When the opportunity presented itself, he took flight. Hoping to evade the Indians who were in pursuit, he headed toward the Clifton Gorge. Although he assumed the Indians would look for him on one of the southern routes, he was discovered near Clifton Gorge. He shot one of the Indians in the party, and knew that if he didn’t find some means of escape, he would certainly be taken back to Old Chillicothe and tortured for his act.
Rather than be captured he looked at the deep ravine in front of him, and then at the Indians close behind and made the choice to leap over the gorge. It was an amazing feat. Some say that the trees grew closer across the gorge than they do today, and he was probably able to climb up one and jump to another. In any event, this was a death-defying jump which the Indians did not follow. He returned to Kentucky where he shared the story of his escape. Because Simon Kenton is better known, some thought it was he, but history has proven that Darnell was the man who leaped the gorge.
Another interesting story about Clifton is that of Loderick Austin, a stage coach driver. Clifton was on the regular stage coach route. Mr. Austin was well known and liked in the village. He would often stop for a chat with the villagers when traveling on his route.
Unfortunately, one day while driving the horses through the gorge, the wheel of the stagecoach hit a rock, causing the young man to fall off the coach and hit his head. The blow proved to be terminal. He died in 1836 at the age of 26. Not knowing if he had any family, the folks in Clifton decided to take up enough money for a decent burial and a headstone. If you visit the cemetery in Clifton, you will find the stone, weathered and worn, engraved with a picture of a stagecoach without a driver.
In more recent history, the village was the birthplace of the legendary head football coach of The Ohio State University, Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes. His father was superintendent of Clifton Union School from 1911 to 1915 and then the family moved from Clifton. The village still claims him as one of its favorite sons.
If you visit Clifton, you might want to visit the opera house. At one time, the structure was used for community events including basketball, so the floor was level. The stage remained, but the seats and the light fixtures were no longer. Residents were determined to bring the old opera house back to life. First the roof needed repair and then the bricks required attention. New lighting fixtures, paint and at last adequate seating was obtained through donations. The old opera house was ready for visitors once again.
The Clifton Union School is located near the opera house. Built in 1871, it opened in 1872 with four departments. This school is rather unique due to the fact that it spans the Greene-Clark County line. One can find an “X’ mark on either side of the building indicating the county line. In 1878, the first graduating class boasted five students. In 1914 the high school students were sent to Cedarville High School and the building was used only for grades one through eight. When the Clifton-Cedarville District was established 1955, the building was used for fifth and sixth grade students. The school was closed in 1962 and sold at auction. It has been kept in good condition and has a museum of Clifton history.
Now a private residence – a shot tower was a rather primitive way of making bullets. Often lead bullets were made in a mold, but the other means was to drop the lead in small balls from the top of the shot tower into a bucket of water on the ground. As the hot lead was dropped, it would become rounded and quickly cool in the water.
In 1834, there was a fine water power mill, a saw mill, a large flour mill, a large distillery, hundreds of hogs in the pens, a large copper shop, a furniture factory and a large tin store. Additionally, there was a three story cotton mill employing about 100 men. Later this was converted to a woolen mill. There were two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a wagon shop, and a horse shoeing shop.
On South River Road, you will find the home of General Benjamin Whiteman. This house is constructed of stone. Benjamin Whiteman was one of the first three associate judges (county commissioners) in Greene County. When he discovered that part of his land would lie in Clark County, he petitioned the state to have the county line altered to allow the entirety of his property to remain in Greene County. The legislature agreed and changed the boundary.
If you drive out to see the lights – drive through the town – there is a beautiful Presbyterian Church on the hill with a cemetery as well.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.